Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Sam Cha, “Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets” (poem) from Clarion #24

It’s not your lawn.

Less than seventy-two hours ago I wrote, in reference to Elizabeth Tallent’s story about poets, “After a few years of trying, I gave up on the poetry in Pushcart, poetry anywhere, though occasionally a poem leaps out and grabs me by the throat.” I had no idea that when I turned the last page of Tallent, I’d run smack into a poem that grabbed me by the throat, the funny bone, the head; that fired on all (of my) cylinders; that excited me like few poems have since I stopped trying to find something to say about Pushcart poems. It made me laugh, but it said something important; and, best of all, I understood why it was written the way it was. Or at least I think I do. And if I see things that aren’t there – so what, they’re there to me.

It’s a little note to the gatekeepers, the Grey Eminences who sniff at anything new or different, who want everything to stay exactly the same as it was when they learned it: to the motherfuckers talking shit about American sonnets that don’t measure up to those from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the speaker’s words: It’s not your lawn. Damn, I love that line. I want that on a t-shirt, I want it on sweatshirts and hats everywhere, because there are a lot of people these days who think everything is their lawn. And I’m not just talking about poetry.

The poem is available online; link is below, and I urge, beg, the three people who’ve somehow stumbled across this obscure page (“she isn’t a writer, or a professor, or even an English teacher, who the hell is she to be writing about poetry?”) to read it now, since I’m going to assume that and otherwise this post won’t make any sense at all.

The title is in-your-face. It has to be; it’s fighting back against three hundred (at least) years of snootery. If it were any less so, it wouldn’t work, like a stand-up set that’s almost really funny, like an actor who doesn’t commit. I’ll admit I’m not completely comfortable with the language (I keep insisting I’m not a prude, but the more I insist, the more I think I am), but it’s necessary here, so I’ll deal with my discomfort. There are two ways to get one’s attention: with a whisper, and with a slap across the face. The whisper wouldn’t do here.

I don’t have the training or the language to do the formal analysis I’m about to do, so please be tolerant. It’s just that I see so much going on here (and I wonder what I can’t see) I just have to write it down, even if I don’t get it right. The lawn belongs to everyone, even me. At least this patch does.

Some elements of sonnet form are clearly used here: the poem is fourteen lines long (though a couple are broken, so maybe it’s sixteen lines); there is a break at the halfway point; there is a rhyme scheme, at least a partial one; and it does end with a rhyming couplet. Where it goes off the rails is meter: it uses everything but iambic pentameter. But that’s where its greatest success lies.

For instance, the opening line –

I know what you want: to waggle your tongue

 – strikes me as anapestic tetrameter with a couple of skipped unstressed beats. Wikipedia (hey, I’ve already admitted I don’t know what I’m doing) tells me it’s common in comic verse, particularly Dr. Seuss, and has a driving rhythm, which seems appropriate for a first line of a tirade.  

But then things get more chaotic:

to make you go buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed,
toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed, brain all snow-white
till you spill your thin blancmange down your tidy-
whiteys and come—back to yourself.

Read that out loud – it’s sex in poetic form. “Buckwild, flushed, knock-kneed, toe-curled, blank-eyed, blank-versed” is that one-two thing picking up speed – I dearly want to make “flushed” “flush-ed” but I think that’s pushing it, so let’s just call it a dropped beat that allows for gaining momentum – until the one-two changes to one-two-three-four at “brain” and then disintegrates into a frenzy: then we come back to ourselves and things calm down, take a breath. AKA, the turn. The speaker then gets all reasonable, even identifies with the motherfuckers for a couple of lines – and these are the closest to iambic pentameter, might even be considered such by those who actually understand the details of such things – before bringing on the point:

                                         …. But the sonnet doesn't
belong to you. There's nothing to own. Not a spit
of land nor spitcurl of rivulet for your chickenwire,
                                 your snares,
your chickenshit sneers—where's the rhyme scheme?
                                 Who cares.
Not Shakespeare. Not Keats, not Drayton, not Donne.
It's not your lawn. (Yawn.) Stop yelling. Be done.

That’s some pretty slick sliding there. First, there’s a semantic arc: The spit of land – a geographic feature of a beach sticking out into water at an angle from the shore –  to a spitcurl of rivulet. A spitcurl is a hair style, if you check Google Images you’ll find Superman in a surprising number of poses with a spitcurl in the middle of his forehead though it’s typically associated with women of the Roaring 20s, the 1920s that is, and here we are in the 2020s which are roaring in a very different way. In any case, spitcurl connects with the water of the spit of land and the rivulet, a small river, but hair is sometimes referred to as coursing like a rivulet, perpetuating the hair idea, and then suddenly it’s chickenwire and snares, or chickenshit sneers, phonetic sliding.

Shakespeare et all don’t care because they’re dead. They probably wouldn’t care if they were alive, since a lot of poets invented their own forms of sonnet. That whole “not-” line brings back the anapest rhythm from the first line, a nice little circle structure I like so much. And that brings us to that incredible line about the lawn, which requires knowing the whole “get off my lawn” trope, but that’s common enough, isn’t it? And by the way, the rhythm of that “It’s not your lawn” is four stressed syllables, which might be called a double spondee: pounding his fist on the table for emphasis. And that last sentence – “Be done” – plays off the use of Donne above. Be done, not Donne. Are we talking to poets now? You be you?

Now about rhyme. From what I can tell, sonnets are supposed to have alternating line rhymes, and here each couplet has a rhyme – sort of. Lines 1/2, 5/6, 9/10 have imperfect rhymes, so imperfect it might be hard to call them rhymes at all. So every other couplet, plus the concluding couplet, has a definite rhyme – the final couplet in fact uses a homophone, Donne and done – and every other couplet maybe rhymes and maybe doesn’t. “Tongue/Elizabethan” has something of the same vowel and close to the same consonant, that sort of thing. So Cha has invented his own rhyme scheme, as well as his own use of meter. Because it’s his lawn, too.

Since this got complicated, I’m throwing in the diagram from my notes. It may not make sense to anyone but me, but I can’t believe how much I get this poem. And, if it turns out I’m completely batshit crazy, well, it’s my lawn, too.

The more I find out about Cha, the more I like him. He has an MFA from my alma mater, after all, though when I went there back in the dark ages, it was a commuter school for alternative students (that is, adults with jobs) consisting of three buildings over a parking garage; I hear it’s grown a bit sice then. If you look for him on Youtube you’ll find a lot of his readings, including one from a 9/15/21 via Stone Soup which includes, at 47:45, his reading of the poem and the brief explanation that an “American sonnet” doesn’t have a rhyme scheme. Interesting, then, that he wrote one into this one. I’m seriously tempted to buy one of his books – American Carnage, or Yellow Book – but would I end up disappointed as I so often am by poetry books? We’ll see, perhaps.

* * *           

  • This poem can be read online at Clarion Magazine
  • Check out Cha’s website for more information about his books and publications
  • Listen to Cha read this poem (at the 47:40 mark) and others at the Stone Soup recording on Youtube.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.